An autism spectrum disorder (ASD) treatment that addresses both child behaviour and parent wellbeing has received Federal funding and will commence its national rollout online later this month.
The holistic intervention for children with ASD and their families, known as Parentworks-Spectrum, addresses child communication skills, and disruptive, hyperactive or aggressive child behaviour, as well as parent wellbeing, over a 12-week period.
The treatment involves parents and caregivers in the intervention process and is suitable for children aged between 2 and 5 years old with a diagnosis of autism (level 2 or 3).
Christy Goodyear took part in Parentworks-Spectrum’s 12-week online pilot program following regular meltdowns from her five-year-old son, Jesse, who lives with ASD.
“When Jesse started daycare in September 2019, his meltdowns began,” Ms Goodyear says.
“ParentWorks-Spectrum taught him to change his thinking, for example, ‘you can be angry, but you can’t push or hit anyone’.
“This really helped Jesse express himself without hurting others.”
Australia’s first ASD intervention treatment with a parent focus
The treatment was created in the Child Behaviour Research Clinic at the University of Sydney and is the first intervention-style treatment of its kind in Australia.
Parentworks-Spectrum aims to create changes in core ASD symptoms and associated behaviour problems, as well as developing a greater understanding of the family adjustments required after having a child with ASD.
Originally conceived by Professor Mark Dadds, Founder and Director of the Child Behaviour Research Clinic at the University of Sydney, the program has been clinically evaluated and received promising results.
“Research has shown that intervention for ASD needs to be very early in a child’s life,” Professor Dadds says.
“While decades of heavily funded research into the biological aspects of ASD have resulted in no progress in treatments for core ASD symptoms, behavioural interventions for ASD are increasingly being shown to produce real changes, and that is what this program focuses on.”
The program is compatible with the recent review and recommendations for improving the NDIS as it provides greater flexibility, empowerment and skills development to parents.
It is run weekly in short 1.5 hour sessions, removing an unnecessary burden on families, and is also the only program in Australia that achieves this in a single integrated treatment.
“ParentWorks-Spectrum is evidence-based, but also free, accessible, and holistic in that it considers whole families’ needs – not just those of children with ASD,” Professor Dadds says.
“We believe these unique features contribute to the program’s success.”
Almost 40 families took part in the trial last year and found significantly lower child behaviour difficulties, improved communication with their child, and saw lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression in parents compared to those on the waitlist for the program. Families involved in the trial also reported greater confidence in their parenting and after completing the intervention found they had more positive interactions with their child.
Christy Goodyear says the program has helped her son’s behaviour, but also taught her how to have a consistent, non-emotional approach to parenting and discipline.
“It made such a positive impact on our family life in all areas,” Ms Goodyear says.
“It wasn’t just how we related to Jesse, it was also how we were able to improve our relationship with each other and improve our marriage.”
Initial testing funded by the Rotary Health Research Foundation has shown the Parentworks-Spectrum to be effective.
The intervention treatment has reduced the severity and frequency of child behaviour problems, autism symptoms, and lowered parent stress across all case studies.
Professor Dadds says his team will perform a data analysis “to better inform users how different elements of treatment can be combined to produce optimum outcomes”.
“This intervention will have a significant impact on outcomes for children with ASD, as there are currently no evidence-based early interventions for parents of children with ASD that are readily available in Australia.”
National rollout to begin later this month
The ParentWorks-Spectrum program is currently split into three different aims.
The first of these is to improve disruptive behaviours by focussing on reducing child behavioural difficulties and their impact on the family.
The next goal is to develop social communication skills by improving parents’ skills that create more positive parent-child interactions.
The final module focuses on parent wellbeing, which facilitates parental teamwork, partner support and wellbeing.
Caregivers who take part attend 12 individual family sessions with a psychologist, online via Zoom over 12 weeks.
As part of the national rollout of this program it is now possible to register your interest.
In phase one of the national rollout, 120 families will be eligible to undertake ParentWorks-Spectrum, free of charge.
In phase two, the program will be shared more widely, with potential for international reach.
The program will continue to be evaluated on an ongoing basis.